Some books like The Great Gatsby don't make good films

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby. Picture: Supplied
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby. Picture: Supplied

Some books have had one or more classic screen versions. Some of Jane Austen's books have been transformed effectively into films, as have works by Charles Dickens. Both have vivid characters and choice dialogue, making them good candidates.

Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights is a tougher nut to crack: its wildness and strangeness have been tamed, lest it seem overly melodramatic. The 1939 film with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon is good, but it's not quite the book (or even the half of the story the film covers).

Other tales just don't seem to adapt well to the screen. Whether it's stories attempted multiple times with no real success, one-time attempts, or long-gestated or hoped-for projects that never came to fruition, these are books or other media that seem simply to defy filming.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one such. A darker and deeper story that its predecessor, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it's been adapted multiple times but no film has stood out in terms of capturing the book's satirical and emotional essence.

Although it's been filmed three times since the silent era, the essence of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby seems to elude filmmakers: none of the movies, including Baz Luhrmann's lavish version starring Leonardo DiCaprio, has been universally hailed.

John Kennedy Toole killed himself after the rejection of his comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces. It was published 11 years after his death through the efforts of his mother and author Walker Percy and won the 1981 Pulitizer Prize for Fiction.

Toole's other novel, The Neon Bible, was published in 1989 and adapted into a film six years later. But Dunces' journey to the screen has taken far longer and is not yet complete. Various stars have been considered at different points, including Will Ferrell, but it simply hasn't happened. Writer-director Steven Soderbergh, attached at one point, said, "I think it's cursed".

Patricia Nell Warren's 1974 novel The Front Runner, about the relationship between a closeted gay college athletic coach and his star runner, became a mainstream success after publication. Star Paul Newman was among those interested but nothing happened before his death. It's said he couldn't get a suitable script but Hollywood studios might also have been put off by the subject matter.

Something similar might have happened with James Kirkwood's Good Times/Bad Times. The story of two boarding-school students who form a close bond, it's a book that could be interpreted in different ways depending on how reliable you consider the narrator. Kirkwood adapted the book into a screenplay - apparently removing some of the homosexual implications - and the project kept getting announced. Actor Cliff Robertson was set at one point to star but the film never happened, either because finance fell through or because Robertson's career stalled after he blew the whistle on studio executive David Begelman's cheque forging.

Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) is one of the best novels about Hollywood. Its title character, Sammy Glick, is a young, unscrupulous hustler who, despite his lack of education, works his way from newspaper copy boy to columnist to Hollywood writer to powerful producer by any means necessary, no matter who he has to backstab or climb over along the way. Chronicling Sammy's rise is bemused, fascinated older colleague Al Mannheim.

Ben Stiller was reported to have been interested in filming the book but, although there have been TV adaptations and a Broadway musical, a movie has been elusive. It has snappy dialogue, vivid characters and a sense of realism (Schulberg was the son of a big Hollywood producer and a screenwriter himself). Some say that despite its 1930s setting it is perceived as too anti-industry and anti-Semitic to get the go-ahead. This, despite other Hollywood self-critiques such as Sunset Boulevard and The Player.

 Jerry Lewis was interested in playing Holden Caulfield. Picture: Supplied

Jerry Lewis was interested in playing Holden Caulfield. Picture: Supplied

J.D. Salinger resisted all overtures to film his coming-of-age novel The Catcher in the Rye in his lifetime. Salinger had not been happy with My Foolish Heart, an adaptation of one of his short stories, which might have helped sour him on the idea.

Salinger thought the character of Holden could not be separated from his distinctive first-person narrative voice (a valid objection to many literary adaptations). He left open the possibility of the film rights being "an insurance policy" for his wife and daughter as long as the film was not made until after he died.

Salinger died in 2010 and still no film has been authorised. Among the many filmmakers interested over the years was, apparently, Jerry Lewis, who wrote about his desire to play unhappy teenager Holden. He was 45 at the time, so it's just as well that didn't happen.

We might yet see one of the unproduced stories come to fruition and blossom, and someone might make a wildly successful version of one of the more difficult texts. All we can do is wait.

This story Books that defy screen adaptation first appeared on The Canberra Times.